Automation is the future. Already robotics are ripping apart manufacturing, generating mass unemployment. Meanwhile, 3D printers can assemble objects en masse with minimal inputs and minimal cost. Slowly, the human soldier is receding from the battlefield, operating weapons from behind a computer screen, not improvised cover. AI is gaining capability and will probably one day surpass the human mind and perhaps even the human race in processing power. You’ve heard this from Luddite and transhumanist alike; sources as disparate as Herbert Marcuse’s writings and The Wall Street Journal hold both hope for the post-robotic era and fear for the coming transition. Legitimate questions arise as to whether machines will someday surpass humans even in arenas we typically associate with our very humanity. Will someday machines make greater music, write better novels, paint more impressive pictures than we can? It’s these questions that electronic pioneer Wolfgang Voigt touches on in his installation Zukunft Ohne Menschen (World Without People), playfully imitating the prowess of machines but everywhere allowing humanity to slip through.
Through his Gas project (or through his label Kompakt), Voigt has created some of the most memorable ambient electronic music in the genre, but this installation seeks the cerebral and conceptual over the blissful and the beautiful. Voigt created Zukunft Ohne Menschen for the entrance to his home city’s arts festival, Art Cologne. The Profan (a Kompakt imprint) release includes a disc of music and a short booklet of digitally manipulated photos. In the photos, Voigt clones and stretches parts of the image to conceal any human beings, producing a glitchy yet intentional painting effect that uses the landscape as a palette, combining both abstraction and depiction. On the one hand, we can see much evidence of the presence of humans, such as fences and lampposts; on the other, Voigt covers the humans themselves with glitch-painting, an even more synthetic process. Voigt calls this process mechanical painting; the technique itself is not difficult (the cloned swatches even seem to be all of the same size), nor are the original photos visually interesting before the alterations. This places them in a strange limbo, in which the few bits of depiction left fight the swashes of the painting for the eye’s attention, thus rendering it jarring and difficult for the viewer to read the image. To my untrained eye, Voigt seems to imitate a kind of childlike A.I., erasing its oppressive human parents from its photos and dripping glitches on the canvas à la Pollock. Voigt-as-machine has plenty of aesthetic sensibility, but in light of the title, the pictures feel like a clever joke with some attractive flourishes.
The musical accompaniment evokes similar conceptual issues, but in electronic music, the trope of the cyborg or the machine-as composer is well-worn and rarely accomplished. Everyone from Kraftwerk to Daft Punk has playfully asked the question: Are we robots? Even the sequencer itself seems to pose it, always playing the right note at the right time (in a skillful programmer’s hands). We have access to random noise sources, which can be quantized into audible tones; we’ve heard this as the foley sounds for computers in the 70s. To an extent, some composers even allow the synthesizer to do much of the work, automating the development of a piece by creating complex patches on large modular systems. Zukunft Ohne Menschen’s music doesn’t push these boundaries; unlike, say, Reed Evan Rosenberg and Ian M. Fraser’s Keroaän, a musical A.I. that employs Xenakis’ stochastic synthesis to create totally machine-generated music, Voigt still plays his arpeggiated chords on a keyboard. He’s acting, imitating machine logic in the construction of Zukunft Ohne Menschen’s melodies. They’re strangely basic, yet without the human appeal of pop music
Like the photos, the depth of sculpting here is minimal, which is disappointing coming from such an effective synthesist as Voigt. Created as they were for an installation, it’s probable that the original intent did not include a listener experiencing the entire album of music at once. Each piece would make passable background music, oddly generic, yet without any headphone-candy leads or thumping rhythm. These qualities, though they might make for a useful installation piece, ultimately make for a tiring listen on the whole. There is little textural variety over the course of Zukunft Ohne Menschen, and though there are some compelling moments in which the layers hang together just right, it rarely feels as if Voigt’s plan for the work extended outside the conceptual frame. Even the cerebral portions of the music seem under-explored. Voigt’s robotic composer seems to prefer that its music remain in standard keys, 4/4 time, and common timbres. Perhaps the tongue-in-cheek joke of the title references a kind of inability on the composer’s part to conceive of what music without people might sound like, but that doesn’t render the bulk of the album exciting or novel to us.
Zukunft Ohne Menschen probably worked well in its original setting, especially since it was at the entrance. It’s a kind of ambient music in that it does not demand attention. The conceptual level of the piece is just thought-provoking enough to last until you reach the next exhibit at a festival. Unlike Zauberberg or many of Voigt’s more recognized works, Zukunft Ohne Menschen is unlikely to sustain the listener’s interest over its course. Completists will appreciate the ability to experience the Art Cologne installation in the convenience of their own home, but everyone else should have no trouble finding more compelling examples of this theme, from the most difficult noise music to the most pleasant synth-pop. It’s as if, in inhabiting the character of a robot, Voigt has neglected his humanity. In seeking to make something outside of human beings, he leaves his audience behind.